Encountering Tatooine

The discourse really affects how we view and think about the Orient. So far this site has delved into the durability of Orientalism, the effect of context, and the place of the individual in the discourse (if you are new to the site, I recommend checking out the linked pages before proceeding).

So, what happens when we encounter the Orient

obi wan hello

Of course, we would think that our views would change. After all, we would be seeing the “Orient” for its reality… but as Edward Said writes, “One ought never to assume that the structure of Orientalism is nothing more than a structure of lies or of myths, which were the truth about them to be told, would simply blow away” 1.

Edward Said takes on the issue of encountering the Orient by engaging with the experiences of European travelers to the Orient beginning in the 19th century. An important notion that Said uses when discussing the relationship between East and West, is the notion of positional superiority
dont get technical with me

Basically positional superiority “puts the westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing the relative upper hand… The scientist, the scholar the missionary, the trader, or the soldier was in, or thought about, the Orient because he could be there, or could think about it, with very little resistance on the Orient’s part” 2. This is basically an inherited relationship Westerners have to the Orient. Arguably, you could say that positional superiority is why George Lucas went to Tunisia to film his space movie, instead of a Tunisian director coming to the United States to do the same.

What Said uncovers from working with the travelogues is that when a Westerner goes to the Orient, they must reconfirm that it is Oriental. This goes as far as overriding their personal vision and understanding with that of the discourse.
oh. great
Basically the discourse takes over any personal experience, and instead they simply reconfirm the Orient as Oriental. Said goes on to show this process of confrontation and then reductionism of the Orient through the 19th century travelogues, where the “Orient is less a place than a topos, a set of references, a congeries of characteristics, that seem to have its origin in a quotation, or a fragment of a text, or a citation from someone’s work on the Orient, or some bit of previous imagining, or an amalgam of all these” 3. The Orient cannot be directly experience, and must be filtered through the discourse

George Lucas and Mark Hamill in Tunisia, circa 1976.

What is interesting is that this process happened when George Lucas and the crew of Star Wars first arrived in Tunisia in 1976 to create Tatooine. Of course given the position of the actors and crew, they already had Orientalist views, and expectations of what the Orient should be like when they arrived in North Africa.

Mark Hamill reflects on his arrival, his first experience with the “Orient,” stating:

“We landed in Djerba and there was a huge hotel complex…Four hotels all next to each other—you could get lost on the way to your room. It was insane. It was all one story, just spread out. Golf courses, restaurants, discotheques—I thought, Is this what Africa is going to be like? But the next day we started out real early and drove forever in the rain to the salt flats” 4.

It seems that Hamill was at first taken aback by the modernity and development of Djerba. It is only when the crew travels out to the salt flats when they are able to recognize the Orient as the discourse has it: rural, backward and undeveloped. Robert Watts, commenting on Nefta that “A lot of nomadic people used to come out of the Sahara, these black-dressed Berber women who still cover their faces. You can only see one eye like that. And they were a terrible hassle at night driving through town because you couldn’t see them” 5.

star wars confused han solo movie harrison ford

This seems to be a jab at the local people for being backward. Even a light reading of the quote reveals that Watts comment isn’t about how the women dress. It is that the Berber women “still cover their faces,” hinting that the act is perceived as representing some pre-modern time, or that the Berbers are not caught up to Western cultural standards. They still dress that way, just like they are still Oriental. Furthermore, these women make driving a hassle according to Watts. The people who live in Tunisia are boiled down to being pre-modern oddities who get in the way of the production crew. The crew had a use for the location and took it as their own. The people who occupy the space, seem to be nuisances.

tunisian men stormtroopers
Several Tunisian extras in costume, Tunisia, 1976.

The USE of Local Labor

jawa girl
Young Tunisian Girl in Jawa Costume for Star Wars (1977)

Interestingly, Star Wars took on a lot of local people as crew for the shot, either having them work equipment, or stand in as extras. This is an interesting encapsulation of Orientalism. A group of Westerners coming to the Orient to create a fantasy, dressing up the locals as aliens, and then filming them while appropriating their architecture. According to J.W. Rinzler, author of “The Making of Star Wars” the crew consisted of approximately 100 people from England and only 25 Tunisians. However, it seems this number is conservative and may just indicate the number of “crew members,” and leave out extras.

For example, The desert scene with the storm troopers consisted of “six local men” (see above image), the Jawas who sell C-3P0 and R2-D2 to Luke and Owen consisted of 12 local children, and the scene with the Jawa’s taking R2-D2 in the canyon again used local children aged 8-10 and a young man named Mahjoub (for some reason the only local that was given a name) 6. Just counting these few scenes that include Tunisian extras, the total is at least 21. This coupled with the idea these aren’t the only scenes where extras played a role, and  there seems to be many Tunisians assisting with production in behind-the-scenes photos would indicate much larger participation in filming than a meager 25 locals.

filming in Djerba
Star Wars filming in Djerba, Tunisia. In the background you can see a crashed spaceship covering up modern buildings, and cutouts of domes in the background.

Appropriation of North African Architecture

One of the biggest things that Star Wars did that affected the discourse was the use of local architecture, something that continued through the Original and Prequel trilogy, and shows up in a sort of mutation in Episode VII. Because of the initial appropriation of Tunisia’s traditional architecture, North African architecture has become forever colored by Star Wars.

modern hotel sidi driss
Hotel Sidi Driss, “The Lars Dining Room” source

In the Original Star Wars, the iconic Lars Homestead was actually a functioning hotel at the time of filming (see Hotel Sidi Driss, you can still stay there, but it seems the hotel has fallen into disrepair, though there are efforts to preserve it as a tourist destination).

Lars Dining Room in as filmed in 1976

Full villages were also used, though somewhat modified. A good example of this is Djerba (see image at beginning of section), which stood in for Mos Eisely. Some aspects of the village were doctored, such as using a crashed spaceship to cover up modern buildings 7. Additionally, cutouts of domed buildings were put in the background to make the place “more interesting” 8. This initial appropriation of the local Tunisian architecture made it necessary to replicate through the prequel trilogy as well.

Qui Gon Jinn and Anakin in Episode I (1999). The building behind them is Ksar Ouled Soltane, appropriated as “slave quarters.”

In Episode I, we visit Tatooine, albeit not Mos Eisely, but Mos Espa. Between the nearly 25 years span between filming Episode IV and Episode I, the locations that were shot initially has developed intensely, this meant that Tozeur, once a small town, now a city, could no longer be used or made to feel like Tatooine. Because of this they had to build their own sets, but given the original use of local architecture, they had to try to replicate the aesthetic. To this end, Gavin Bocquet, production designer for the Prequels, remarks “We built Mos Espa with local labor and material to get the feel of North African architecture” 9. Close reading of this quote reveals that it isn’t just the materials that made the architecture, but the local labor seems to be a necessity, almost an element of the building itself. This isn’t just because of the techniques, as they did not build full set pieces. None of the sets had tops; they were just walls made of wooden frames, wire mesh and foam… which doesn’t even sound remotely like “traditional materials” 10.

Local Salem Ben Said takes turns with family and friends living in the Mos Espa set, selling trinkets to tourists. Here Said bakes bread in a makeshift kitchen. Near Ong Jemel, Tunisia.
A Tunisian who lives in the set of Mos Espa, selling trinkets and giving tours. source
Village of Tuanul, on Jakku. Pre-flamethrower?

Now it makes sense I guess that if you want the planet to feel the same, you would try to replicate the buildings that were used initially. However, the use of North African architecture shows up again in Episode VII, and this time it’s not even Tunisian architecture.

Granted, this isn’t even that visible in the movie, unless you’re looking for it. But The buildings in the village of Tuanul, the village that is destroyed in the beginning of the film, utilizes buildings that bear a striking resemblance to Malian mud architecture.

Desert vernacular architecture
Mud mosque in Bougouni, Mali

This is interesting given that the Jakku scenes were not even filmed in North Africa, but filmed in Abu Dhabi. This means that in order to recreate a Star Wars style desert/Oriental planet that wasn’t really Tatooine, the production crew had to appropriate and try to reproduce architecture from a North African country, as opposed to utilizing traditional Middle Eastern architecture.

But WHY?

This is because after Star Wars affected the discourse, North African architecture was colored, and remains colored by the films. No longer does Tunisian architecture read as Tunisian, but as Tatooine… but more on this later…

star wars han solo behind the scenes harrison ford mark hamill

Becoming Tatooine

Said writes that, “in the Orient one suddenly confronted unimaginable antiquity, inhuman beauty, boundless distance. These could be put to use more innocently, as it were, if they were thought and written about, not directly experienced” 11. The feelings Said lists pop up in a statement made by Alec Guinness (Obi Wan Kenobi) when talking about working in the salt flats. Guinness states “There’s a great feeling of strange space that stretches on for hundreds of miles; its genuine, real and gritty—it’s not some made-up world” 12.

Production shot from filming in Tunisia, 1976.

There are interesting things going on here… Not only is Guinness’s quote in line with the 19th century discourse about experiencing  the Orient, but he is also remarking on how much Tunisia was Tatooine. Tatooine resembled Tunisia so much, that many of the actors who filmed in Tunisia through the series say similar things about not having to act, because they were on Tatooine. George Lucas is quoted remarking about returning to Tunisia for Episode I as saying “as difficult as it was, Tunisia was the place that brought back the most memories for me. It looks like Tatooine—it must be Star Wars 13.

So what is happening here?

count dooku happy star wars

This is the shift in the discourse created by George Lucas, and the popularity of Star Wars. Tunisia has become an embodiment of Tatooine, just as the Levant became the near Orient. It is almost like an overlay on top of the real place because of what we “know” about the place before we even encounter it. Said writes of the Western experience of the Orient in the 19th century stating “the Orient was a place of pilgrimage, and every major work belonging to a genuine if not always to an academic Orientalism took its form, style, and intention from the idea of pilgrimage there” 14. This theme emerges in the Star Wars fandom, with the almost-genre of “pilgrimage” videos to the various filming sites in Tunisia. There are countless examples of these (short list gathered here), but I will handle a couple just for clarity.

Here is an example, note at 57 seconds in, Alan Mechem comments upon visiting Hotel Sidi Driss (aka the Lars Homestead) that “Here we are on that exact planet [meaning Tatooine]” to which his wife responds, “Feels as hot as Tatooine.” This seems relatively innocuous, but considering Tatooine’s heat is completely imaginary, and that it is simply because Tunisia was used to embody Lucas’s planet, one can understand how Tunisia is no longer simply a country to the Star Wars fandom. It is no longer just a physical place, but a fantastic location that carries the weight of Lucas’s creation.

See also “Touring Tatooine aka Tunisia,” another pilgrimage video that happens to replicate the opening of a Star Wars film. The representation of Tatooine is so bound up with the reality of Tunisia that the creator of the video wrote in the opening scroll that “It is a period following civil war. With the Arab Spring of 2011 and ensuing revolution now over, Tunisia is once again a safe outer rim system to visit” (See image left). Tunisia is not just visually similar to Tatooine, but it also occupies its position in the galaxy: the outer rim. Tatooine has become the Orient for Star Wars fans. Just as the Orient was on the outskirts of the Christian world, Tunisia (standing in for Tatooine) is in the outer rim.

So strong is this connection between Tatooine and the Orient that David West Reynolds, Ph.D. in Classical Archaeology, undertook archaeological field work to track down the once lost Star Wars film sites (he now works for Lucasfilm, assisted with location scouting for Episode I and has published numerous Star Wars books for children). In an article about him titled “Digging Up Tatooine,” Reynolds remarks on his experience working in Tunisia stating “It felt like I was on the planet Tatooine, that’s what it felt like. It felt like I had stepped into the movie screen. These guys, these Berbers might as well have been Jawas.”

star wars what surprised princess leia


So it seems that for many, it’s not just the natural environment of Tunisia (the heat, the landscape), or even just the architecture (Hotel Sidi Driss, Ksar Ouled Soltane) that are bound to Star Wars. Reynold’s remark reveals how much Tunisians themselves have come to embody the aliens that occupy Tatooine for the Star Wars fandom.

Image by Gary He source

But what does it mean when in actuality, the local Tunisians were the Jawas, and played the role assigned to them? The Oriental masquerades as alien in Star Wars. They are the junk-hoarding Jawas, the evil Neimoidians, the vicious Sand People. They represent danger to those who belong to the developed societies outside the outer rim. The Tunisian civil war and revolution existed simply as a blockade to pilgrimages to the real Tatooine, an opening scroll to renewed Western consumption, threatened yet again by ISIS… then again maybe not.

This is the dehumanization of the Orient and Oriental, operating under the guise of light hearted space fantasy. Orientalism (as a discourse) steered the representation of Tatooine as an Oriental place, and now Tatooine has come to embody the Orient for millions of fans.


1. [Said, Edward. Orientalism. (New York: Random House, 1994 ). 6.]
2. [Ibid. 3.]
3. [Ibid. 177.]
4. [Rinzler, J.W. The Making of Star Wars. (New York: Ballantine Books,2007. 140.]
5. [Ibid. 140.]
6. [Ibid. 146; 141; 152.]
7. [Knoll, John. Creating the Worlds of Star Wars: 365 Days. China: Abrams Books, 2005. 16.]
8. [Rinzler, J.W. The Making of Star Wars. (New York: Ballantine Books,2007. 159.]
9. [Bouzereau, Laurent and Jody Duncan. Star Wars, The Making of Episode I: the Phantom Menace. (New York: Del Rey, 1991). 93]
10. [Ibid. 91.]
11. [Said, Edward. Orientalism. (New York: Random House, 1994 ). 167.]
12. [Rinzler, J.W. The Making of Star Wars. (New York: Ballantine Books,2007. 152.]
13. [Bouzereau, Laurent and Jody Duncan. Star Wars, The Making of Episode I: the Phantom Menace. (New York: Del Rey, 1991). 93]
14. [Said, Edward. Orientalism. (New York: Random House, 1994 ). 168.]

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